Firefly Studios return with the 2014 release of Stronghold Crusader II, the sequel to the original and well-received 2002 title Stronghold Crusader. Advertised as a Castle-sim, in its simplest terms, it does what it says on the tin, though there are numerous issues that for a 2014 title really bog down the experience and impact on the potential that lies with this title. Largely based around the skirmish gameplay of its predecessor, it does feel an awful lot like the original, without the improvements, but features such as both a Crusader and Arabic single player campaign, a map editor, and new engine mechanics, there are enhancements that prevent it from feeling purely like an enhancement of the 2002 title.
The control system does feel a little bit sluggish. Moving the mouse around itself feels like you’re dragging it along against its will and the frame rate is a little disappointing, even when playing on a machine that meets the specified requirements. The AI can at times be intolerable to control, particularly when it comes to fortifications. This is something that even the greatest titles of the strategy genre suffer from and Stronghold Crusader 2 is no exception. Too many times did my archers walk through the castle gates and get ambushed by any forces when what they should have been doing was mounting the walls. In the open field it’s less of a problem, yet each unit appears on the map singularly, which can make grouping a specific division of recruits all the more difficult and when navigating combat in the open field, becomes less strategic and more about your entire force concentrating on one enemy unit. Stronghold Crusader 2 doesn’t make it easy on the player, but it is possible to get used to it, though you may find yourself shouting at your troops from time to time.
This is very much a game of patience. There is no fast forward button to accelerate the process. Each campaign or skirmish must be played it real-time that can last up to hours. More strategy goes into building your kingdom than fighting the actual enemy. You’ll have a harder time keeping the people happy and your buildings populated and that’s before the enemy attacks or you get hit by an unexpected, and uncontrollable environmental event. This can have a detrimental impact on the overall pace of the game. If you are a fan of economic strategy that requires patience and skill then this is very much a game for enjoyment. But if you are more appealed by the promise of conquest then there will perhaps be some disappointments.
The mechanics of strategic combat are not as expertly developed, and victory often leans towards the larger force or the greater fortifications. Ambushing, flanking or strategic combat have little room here where you would otherwise find in the Total War franchise. Yet despite being set in the Crusader age, war doesn’t appear to be its main priority. When forces meet in the field of battle, the pace grinds slower than its standard rate. Troops walk sluggishly towards each other and due to graphical inferiority may as well we hitting each other with sticks. The focus has almost certainly been placed on the economy system, rather than it’s military.
But that’s where Stronghold Crusader 2 really shows itself off and as a result, can be a great deal of fun. There is complete freedom with how you build your Kingdom. Each mode starts you off with a Keep, but after that, creative freedom is yours and can be very rewarding. At the same time, your kingdom is constantly bustling with activity as it grows in size and populace. Peasants gathered initially outside the keep to be assigned jobs and then set out to work, with detail that allows you to watch the complete process if you so wish, gathering the materials, crafting them in the workshop and then delivering them to stockpile. Such detail is a rare attribute in the current era of the strategy genre, and it something that regrettably can be lost as a greater importance in placed on the graphics.
Despite the greater percentage of this review criticising Stronghold Crusader 2, considering much fresher competitors, this remains a very complex and strategically challenging title that is enjoyable to play. It largely depends on what form of strategy games you like to play. If you’re priority is combat and unit navigation, this is probably not going to keep you engaged, but if you are willing to put in the time and effort to build an economy, and then an army, then Stronghold Crusader 2 can be a rewarding experience. It’s difficult to manage and there are a lot of bumps in the road, it still remains a very playable title.
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